How long until this nightmare is over?

I’m tired of this president already. What an awful combination of idiocy and cunning. To wit, just today from the Moron in Chief’s mouth:

This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.

Jeebus.

Anyway, in anticipation of never having to hear about Trump every again, I wrote another little Chrome plugin yesterday. It tells you how many days until this is all over.

You can get it here: Trump Time Remaining

Normally, it’s just a little icon that tells you how much of Trump’s term remains. Here is it set to percent:

If you click on that icon, you get some more information:

That’s really all there is to it. You can change your reference date (election or inauguration) and you can adjust the expected number of terms (please, G-d, let it be just one), and you can change what is shown in the icon: days remaining, days passed, etc. Note that icons can only reliably show three digits, and we have more than 1300 days left, so days remaining may not work nicely in the icon on your computer.

So, how long until this nightmare ends? Well, 1362 days, give or day. Now you know.

 

Nixon was right

 

When the president does it, that means that it’s not illegal.

Like most Americans, I’m familiar with this infamous quote, from a Nixon interview with David Frost in 1977. I always considered it an example of the maniacal hubris of Richard Nixon.

The thing is, I’ve come to understand that, at least from an functional standpoint, it is basically true.

What happens if the president breaks the law? Well, he might use his executive powers to direct law enforcement not to pursue it. But if he didn’t, presumably, he could be brought up on charges and a court could find him guilty. If it were a federal crime, he could just pardon himself, but if not, I guess he could even go to jail.

But, can he lose the presidency over a crime?

It seems, not directly. As far as I can tell — and I hope legal types will educate me — the Constitution contains precisely two ways to get rid of a president:

  • an election
  • impeachment

Both of these are obviously political processes. There’s certainly nothing there saying that if you commit a crime of type “X”, you’re out.

Conventional wisdom expects that if the president does something even moderately unsavory, political pressure will force the House of Representatives to impeach him. I would have taken comfort in that up until a few months ago, but now … not so much.

Today’s House of Representatives is highly polarized, and the party in power (by a ratio of 240 / 193) is poised to make great strides towards realizing its long-held agenda. Would they let a little unlawful presidential activity get in the way of that? I don’t think so.

What if their own constituents don’t care about a president breaking some laws that they think are pointless or unjust? Let’s say Trump’s tax returns show up on Wikileaks, and forensic accountants come up with evidence of tax fraud. Are we sure voters will not see that as a mark of genius?

Congress will move to impeach if and when the pressure from that activity gets in the way of their agenda, and not before. That time could, in theory, never come.

I’m afraid that people holding their breath for an impeachment based on the emoluments clause may pass out waiting.

Donald Trump once said this:

Also, probably one of DT’s more truthful statements. (Though my legal team informs me that murder is not a federal crime, so he would not be able to self-pardon.)

 

Taking things personally

I’m not thrilled with the outcome of this election. I believe Trump will harm America’s interests, its ideals, its place in the world, and many of its people. Many people who voted for him, who are suffering now, will receive no promised relief, and many new people will likely be immiserated. It’s bad, very bad.

But I’m almost embarrassed to say that there is another, more personal reason I detest Trump: his absolute disdain for professionals, facts, and details, for consideration of others’ interests, for a qualitative and quantitative weighing of costs and benefits to various winners and losers. In short: he is a policy anti-analyst, and people love him for it. I am a policy analyst, and his type are my natural enemy.

I have a degree from an institution who’s motto is “Speaking Truth to Power.” I hold that motto dear, as I do the hope that when presented with “truth,” the powerful, will, in good faith, integrate such information and act on it.

Before Trump there was already ample evidence that policy analysis was not getting much traction. I have even written before about how policy analysis itself has become debased, leading to its total disregardability. Corporate communications departments seem to employ the lion’s share of “policy people,” and anyone with an agenda and a few bucks can generate realistic looking “policy analysis.”

In further evidence of the weakness of policy analysis, I have heard the current and former deans of the policy program where I got my degree wonder out loud why more graduates of our program did not end up in leadership positions. The answer, it seems to me, is rather obvious. First, the pathway to modern political leadership is indifferent to whether you know what you are talking about, or if you work diligently to maintain objectivity and an open mind. Policy skills are simply no help. Worse, the temperament that draws someone to the application page of a policy program (plus a few years of his or her life) is probably negatively correlated with power-seeking and leadership.

But this election was something completely new, at least to my generation. Knowing exactly what Trump stood for, many people voted for him anyway, in what amounts to a stunning rebuke of technocratic analysis in favor decision-making by ideology and “common sense.” It was a vote for George W. Bush’s famous “gut-based” style taken to a level that I suspect would give even W indigestion.

Furthermore, Mr. Trump has been assembling a cabinet comprised almost entirely of yes-men and ideologues. These are not curious people. They are policy anti-analysts as much as Trump himself.

Power, it seems, has a lot to say to Truth, and we’ll be hearing all about it in the coming months and years.

So, now, driven into the wilderness, what is the next move for those who prefer reality-based policy? Practically, speaking, retreating to liberal states and organizations is probably the short-term answer — an unavoidable step if policy analysts want to continue to remain employed. However, in the long term we must advance. How?

I can think of two projects that seem worthwhile to me:

First, policy analysts must somehow, as a group, figure out a way to separate hackery from serious analysis, and to make that separation readily apparent to the most casual observer. I don’t know what form that would take. Professional certification? Peer review? Code of conduct? This will be hard, because the ideologues and their paid spokespeople have become masters at painting anybody who disagrees with them as just as interested as they are, turning every conversation into a “both sides do it.”

Second, policy analysts must put aside their cherished memo-writing skills and deep love of complexity, and learn to convey their results differently to different groups. For the electorate at large, it’s time to master the soundbite, and sadly, the Tweet. This will hurt, because real situations are complex, and soundbites cannot properly convey a complex truth. I’ll admit, I have no idea how to do this, but I fear that is part of our collective problem. Maybe graduate policy training should include not only memo-writing, but all manner of modern “propaganda:” billboard, bumper sticker, lawn sign, protest sign, tweet, Facebook post, newspaper op-ed, blog post, 30 second radio blip, 3 minute TV interview, etc. Policy analysis must learn to fit on a smartphone screen.

Anybody else have some good ideas?

Total War?

Mitch McConnell famously said his party’s “number one priority is to make this president a one-term president.” That was in October of 2010, nearly two years after Obama was elected. However, there is pretty good evidence that Republicans plotted an agenda of obstruction from day one.

They pursued a strategy of “total war,” not yielding or compromising on any of Obama’s agenda. How did that work out for them? Well, with today’s perspective, it looks pretty good. R’s in deep red places were rewarded. R’s in purple places did not too bad, certainly nothing crushing. And of course the presidency speaks for itself. Total war did result in significant collateral damage, though: no compromise, no governance — essentially reduced performance of our institutions and the commensurate reduced faith in them to solve problems.

So far, Democrats have gone along with the standard rhetoric of accepting the will of the people, yadda yadda. Which I think for now is fine.

Should liberals adopt a policy of total war?

Pros

  • Will probably be effective in stopping/slowing R agenda
  • Will rally base and, potentially, energize party. Nobody likes a bully, but nobody likes people who let bullies roll over them, either.
  • Negotiating in good faith while your opposition as a total war philosophy results in a “ratcheting” effect, whereby when your in power, you get nowhere, and they’re in power, they somewhere.
  • The R’s have already shown their willingness to pursue this approach, so it’s not like D’s holding back will stop them from doing it the next time D’s are in power.
Cons

  • Obstruction generally at odds with Democratic principles of governance. Or maybe blocking bad policy is good enough for a minority party?
  • Compromise is the essence of governance, and by shunning it, we validate the idea that compromise is bad.
  • It encourages the same behavior from your opposition if/when you gain power again.

I seriously am not of one mind on this issue. Everything I know about policy says total war is beyond bad. But what I’m learning of politics makes me think it might be the only path forward. Furthermore, it may be that most of the damage from the total war approach may already have been done, which is tragic, but there may not be much to lose from pursuing such a strategy.

On the other hand, this might be a decent short- and medium-term strategy, but as faith in government to solve problems and improve life is kind of core to D thinking, it might be a very bad long-term strategy.

Really, I dunno.

Voices, ideas, and power

So, a day or so ago I was discussing the problems facing a democracy when a group of people, previously able to control outcomes with their vote, lose power. They may, not getting what they want democratically, turn to undemocratic approaches — the dangerous last gasp of a majority group becoming a minority.

Apparently, it turns out that that is not a problem we will have to deal with soon.

But it is with some irony that, tables turned, am today thinking about the limits of democracy. That was not on my mind yesterday morning.

Clearly, I need to come to grip with the fact that I and many of my friends were not hearing a lot of voices, or if we heard them, we dismissed them as uninformed, ignorant, and potentially irrelevant in the grander scheme of things. That is wrong for at least two reasons. First, duh, you end up losing. Each voice comes with a vote attached. But also, it just isn’t OK to dismiss people, even “bad” people. My main weapon against the Trump phenomenon of the last year was utter derision. That made me feel better (and I’m not giving it up) but it didn’t help stop him, and who knows, maybe it even helped fuel the response we saw last night?

If voices cannot and should not be ignored or somehow put on the sidelines, I don’t think the same goes for ideas. Ideas can vary from the brilliant to the disastrous, and we desperately need some way to sort them and then to make them stay where they belong. I’m not talking about censorship. Again, that’s focusing on voices. I’m talking about finding a way to make sure bad ideas are clearly, obviously so to everyone.

This has been a problem since the beginning of time, and it is clear that we are not very close to solving it. Back in olden days we had a system like this:

good idea bad idea
king likes happens, yay happens, disaster
king dislikes does not happen, opportunity lost nothing happens, ok

This turns out not to be fantastic system for decision-making, so we switched over to this:

good idea bad idea
people like happens, yay happens, disaster
people dislike does not happen, opportunity lost nothing happens, ok

This is much better, as people should generally like things that are good, or at least the people who have to deal with the consequences are the same ones making the decision. But if you believe that idea popularity and idea quality are not strongly correlated, it still leaves a lot to be desired.

Well, idea popularity and idea quality are not particularly well correlated. This is something that the Framers would have taken as prima facie obvious. The technology of the day would not have allowed for direct democracy, but they would not have wanted it anyway. They discussed this at length and put plenty of checks into the system to make sure runaway bad ideas do not gain power. Most of the time, in fact, I tend to think they put in too many checks. (That I suddenly feel different today says what?)

Well, my theory is that we relied on extra-governmental institutions: newspapers, intellectuals, clergy, to help pre-sort ideas. The most hideous ideas were put in the trash heap long before they became birdies whispering in candidates ears. I grew up in a world where it appeared that elites had pretty good power over ideas. They could not kill them, of course, but they could push them out of certain spaces, and that was good enough to keep them out of the mainstream and the ballot box.

That’s over. Unless the intellectually motivated, the curious, the skeptical, the open-minded, the thoughtful, the trained, the expert, the conservative, somehow reassert power over ideas, things are going to get worse.

How do we do it?

More election nerdism

Keeping up my streak of mildly entertaining, though basically useless Chrome Extensions, I have create a very tiny extension that keeps the Nate Silver fivethirtyeight predictions in your Chrome toolbar at all times.

You can choose which of Silver’s models is displayed, and clicking brings up more detail as well as links to a few other sites making predictions. Check it out!

For those who are interested in such things, the code is up on github. It’s actually a reasonably minimalist example of a “browser action” extension.

screen-shot-2016-10-05-at-11-09-46-am

On the morality of tax avoidance

People were pretty unhappy when Donald Trump claimed that not paying taxes “makes him smart.” Similarly, nobody was impressed when Mitt Romney claimed that he “paid all the taxes I am required to, not a dollar more.”

What these folks do is legal. It’s called tax avoidance, and the more money you have, the harder you and your accountants will work, and the better at it you’ll be. There is an entire industry built around tax avoidance.

From www.ccPixs.com
From www.ccPixs.com

Though I want to disapprove of these people, it does occur to me that most of us do not willingly pay taxes that we are not required to pay. It’s not like I skip out on deducting my charitable giving or my mortgage interest, or using the deductions for my kids. I’m legally allowed those deductions and I use them.

So what is wrong with what Trump and Romney do?

One answer is “nothing.” I think that’s not quite the right answer, but it’s close. Yes, just because something is legal does not mean that it’s moral. But where do you draw the line here? Is it based on how clever your accountants had to be to work the system? Or how crazy the hoops you jumped through were to hide your money? I’m not comfortable with fuzzy definitions like that at all.

What is probably immoral, is for a rich person to try to influence the tax system to give himself more favorable treatment. But then again, how do you draw a bright line? Rich people often want lower taxes and (presumably) accept that that buys less government stuff and/or believe that they should not have to transfer their wealth to others. That might be a position that I don’t agree with, but the case for immorality there is a bit more complex, and reasonable people can debate it.

On the other hand, lobbying for a tax system with loopholes that benefit them, and creating a system of such complexity that only the wealthiest can navigate it, thus putting the tax burden onto other taxpayers, taxpayers with less money, is pretty obviously immoral. Well, if not immoral, definitely nasty.

 

Campaigning in an Alternate Universe

I’ve been bouncing around just at the edge of my 2016 presidential campaign overload limit, and the other night’s debate and associated post-debate blogging sent me right through it.

Yes, I was thrilled to see my preferred candidate (Hermione) outperform the other candidate (Wormtail), but all the post-debate analysis and gloating made me weary.

Then, I thought about the important issues facing this country, the ones that keep me up at night worrying for my kids, the ones that were not discussed in the debate, or if they were, only through buzzwords and hand waves, and I got depressed. Because there is precious little in the campaign that addresses them. (To be fair, Clinton’s platform touches on most of these, and Trump’s covers a few, though neither as clearly or candidly as I’d like.)

So, without further ado, I present my list of campaign issues I’d like to see discussed, live, in a debate. If you are a debate moderator from an alternate universe who has moved through an interdimensional portal to our universe, consider using some of these questions:

 

1.

How do we deal with the employment effects of rapid technological change? File the effects of globalization under the same category, because technological change is a driver of that as well. I like technology and am excited about its many positive possibilities, but you don’t have to be a “Luddite” to say that it has already eliminated a lot of jobs and will eliminate many more. History has shown us that whenever technology takes away work,  it eventually gives it back, but I have two issues with that. First, it is certainly possible that “this time it’s different. Second, and more worrisome, history also shows that the time gap between killing jobs and creating new ones can be multigenerational. Furthermore, it’s not clear that the same people who had the old jobs will be able to perform the new ones, even if they were immediately available.

Luddites
from Wikimedia

This is a setup for an extended period of immiseration for working people. And, by the way, don’t think you’ll be immune to this because you’re a professional or because you’re in STEM. Efficiency is coming to your workplace.

It’s a big deal.

I don’t have a fantastic solution to offer, but HRC’s platform, without framing the issue just as I have, does include the idea of major infrastructure reinvestment, which could cushion this effect.

Bonus: how important should work be? Should every able person have/need a job? Why or why not?

2.

Related to this is growing inequality. The technology is allowing fewer and fewer people to capture more and more surplus. Should we try to reverse that, and if so, how do we do so? Answering this means answering some very fundamental questions about what is fairness that I don’t think have been seriously broached.

Occupy
from Wikimedia

Sanders built his campaign on this, and Clinton’s platform talks about economic justice, but certainly does not frame it so starkly.

What has been discussed, at least in the nerd blogosphere, are the deleterious effects of inequality: its (probably) corrosive effect on democracy as well as its challenge to the core belief that everyone gets a chance in America.

Do we try to reverse this or not, and if so, how?

 

3.

from Wikimedia
from Wikimedia

Speaking of chances, our public education system has been an important, perhaps the important engine of upward mobility in the US. What are we going to do to strengthen our education system so that it continues to improve and serve everyone? This is an issue that spans preschool to university. Why are we systematically trying to defund, dismantle, weaken, and privatize these institutions? Related, how have our experiments in making education more efficient been working? What have we learned from them?

4.

Justice. Is our society just and fair? Are we measuring it? Are we progressing? Are we counting everyone? Are people getting a fair shake? Is everyone getting equal treatment under the law?

BLM
from Wikimedia

I’m absolutely talking about racial justice here, but also gender, sexual orientation, economic, environmental, you name it.

If you think the current situation is just, how do you explain recent shootings, etc? If you think it is not just, how do you see fixing it? Top-down or bottom-up? What would you say to a large or even majority constituency that is less (or more) concerned about these issues than you yourself are?

 

5.

flood102405
From Wikimedia

Climate change. What can be done about it at this point, and what are we willing to do? Related, given that we are probably already seeing the effects of climate change, what can be done to help those adversely effected, and should we be doing anything to help them? Who are the beneficiaries of climate change or the processes that contribute to climate change, and should we transfer wealth to benefit those harmed? Should the scope of these questions extend internationally?

 

6.

Rebuilding and protecting our physical infrastructure. I think both candidates actually agree on this, but I didn’t hear much about plans and scope. We have aging:asr-9_radar_antenna

  • electric
  • rail
  • natural gas
  • telecom
  • roads and bridges
  • air traffic control
  • airports
  • water
  • ports
  • internet

What are we doing to modernize them, how much will it cost? What are the costs of not doing it? What are the barriers that are getting in the way of major upgrades of these infrastructures, and what are we going to do to overcome them?

Also, which of these can be hardened and protected, and at what cost? Should we attempt to do so?

 

7.

Military power. What is it for, what are its limits? How will you decide when and how to deploy military power? Defending the US at home is pretty straightforward, but defending military interests abroad is a bit more complex.

U.S. Soldiers depart Forward Operating Base Baylough, Afghanistan, June 16, 2010, to conduct a patrol. The Soldiers are from 1st Platoon, Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment. (DoD photo by Staff Sgt. William Tremblay, U.S. Army/Released)
DoD photo

Do the candidates have established doctrines that they intend follow? What do they think is possible to accomplish with US military power and what is not? What will trigger US military engagement? Under what circumstances do we disengage from a conflict? What do you think of the US’s record in military adventures and do you think that tells you anything about the types of problems we should try to solve using the US military?

7-a. Bonus. What can we do to stop nuclear proliferation in DPRK? Compare and contrast Iran and DPRK and various containment strategies that might be deployed.

 

 

Trump: the disease

After last night’s embarrassing Clinton vs. Trump matchup, I’m once again feeling glum and confused. It caused me to reflect on a dichotomy that I was exposed to in high school: that of “great man” vs. circumstance. I think I believe mostly in circumstance, and maybe even a stronger version of that theory than is commonly proposed.

In my theory, Trump is not an agent with free will, but more akin to a virus: a blob of RNA with a protein coat, evolved to do one thing, without any sense of what it is doing. He is a speck floating in the universe, a mechanically fulfilling its destiny. A simulation running in an orrery of sufficient complexity could predict his coming.

This is his story:

Somewhere, through a combination of natural selection and genetic mutation, a strange child is born into a perfectly suited environment, ample resources and protection for his growth into a successful, powerful monster. Had he been born in another place or time, he might have been abandoned on an ice floe when his nature was discovered, or perhaps killed in early combat with another sociopath. But he prospered. With a certain combination of brashness and utter disregard for anything like humility, substance, or character, it was natural that he would be put on magazine covers, and eventually, television, where, because of television’s intrinsic nature, itself the product of a long, peculiar evolution, he killed, growing yet more powerful.

Later, perhaps prompted by something he saw on a billboard or perhaps due to a random cosmic ray triggering a particular neuron to fire, our virus started talking about politics. By chance, his “ideas” plugged into certain receptors, present in the most ancient, reptilian parts of our brains. Furthermore, society’s immune system, weakened through repeated recent attacks from similar viruses, was wholly unprepared for this potent new disease vector. Our virus, true to form, exploited in-built weaknesses to direct the media and make it work for its own benefit, potentially instructing the media to destroy itself and maybe taking the entire host — our world — in the process.

In the end, what will be left? A dead corpse of a functioning society, teeming with millions of new viruses, ready to infect any remnants or new seedlings of a vital society.

And the universe will keep turning, indifferent.

The end. 

Carbon Tax vs Cap-and-Trade. This is boring by now.

If you’ve spent any time in an energy economics class, you have probably seen a slide that shows the essential equivalency of a carbon tax and a cap-and-trade system, at least with respect to their ability to internalize externalities and fix a market failure. However, if you scratch the surface of the simple model used to claim this equivalency and you realize it only works if you have a good knowledge of the supply and demand curves for carbon emissions. (There are other non-equivalencies, too, like where the incidence of the costs falls.)

The equivalency idea is that for a given market clearing of carbon emissions and price, you can either set the price, and get the emissions you want, or set the emissions and you will get the price. As it turns out, nobody really has a good grip on the nature of those curves, and we live in a world of uncertainty anyway, so there actually is a rather important difference: what variable are we going to “fix” about and which one will “float,” carrying  all the uncertainty: the price of the carbon emissions quantity?

I bring this up because today I read a nice blog post by Severin Borenstein which I will reduce to its essential conclusion: A carbon tax is much better than cap-and-trade. He brings up the point above, stating that businesses just are much better able to adapt when they know what the price is going to be, but there are other advantages to a tax.

First, administratively, it is much easier to set a tax than it is to legislate an active and vibrant market into existence. If you’ve lived in the world of public policy, I hope you know that Administration Matters.

Furthermore, legislatures are not fast, closed-loop control systems. They can’t adapt their rules on the fly quickly as new information comes in, and sometimes political windows close entirely, making it impossible make corrections. As a result, the ability to adjust caps in a timely manner is, at best, difficult. This is a fundamentally harder problem then getting people to agree, a priori, on what an acceptable price — one with more than a pinch of pain, but not enough to kill the patient.

So, how did we end up with cap-and-trade rather than a carbon tax? Well, certainly a big reason is the deathly allergy legislatures have to the word “tax.” Even worse: “new tax.” Perhaps that was the show-stopper right there. But it certainly did not help that we had economists (I suspect Severin was not among them) providing the conventional wisdom that a carbon tax and a cap-and-trade system are essentially interchangeable. The latter is not true, unless a wise, active, and responsive regulator, free to pursue an agreed objective is at the controls. So pretty much never.